How are you sleeping these days?
Do you find yourself lying awake night after night processing challenges you face at work? Perhaps you have goals you want to accomplish, yet you feel an enormous burden and anxiety about reaching them.
When this goes on for too long, you risk burnout. German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined this term in 1974 to describe physical and mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. Inability to sleep is also a common symptom.
If you’re experiencing this, you’re not alone. Nearly half of Americans (48%) report lack of sleep due to stress. I’ve experienced burnout at different times in my career. During one of the worst times, I stopped sleeping for several months. I was exhausted and mentally and emotionally depleted.
Since then, I’ve learned to become more of a journey-minded leader, putting my fears and frustrations into context and viewing life as more of a journey and less of a destination.
In last week’s interview with Claire, she touched on this and shared her solution – she took a sabbatical. While that might not be possible for you, there are some simpler things you can do to hit the “pause” button and minimize stress-related anxiety.
And before you say, “Elise, there’s no way I can hit pause,” I will tell you some of the strongest leaders I know live out these lessons and are better leaders, parents, spouses and friends because of it.
So do me a favor. The next time you’re on the edge of burnout, I want you to stop and consider these five things.
· Stop pushing yourself so hard – You’re harder on yourself than your boss, right? Destination leaders often think they need to take on every extra assignment offered, skip lunch or constantly stay late. Yet no one specifically says, “I expect you to stay late” unless it’s a special situation.
Stress and chaotic days are a part of being a leader, but be smart about how you spend your time. Always observe deadlines, but recognize it’s not as much about the quantity of time as it is the quality. If you’re unclear about how to stop pushing yourself, have a conversation with your boss and ask what their expectations are for you. This could help clarify how to invest your time so you’ll know when it’s OK to turn the computer off and head home.
· Prioritize – Think about the different areas of your life – personal, professional, spiritual, etc. What needs to happen now, what can wait? It’s important to have both short-term and long-term goals for these things. But don’t try to focus on everything all at once. That leads to feeling overwhelmed. Instead, keep a running list of immediate tasks you need to accomplish in deadline order so you can knock them out on time. Keep a second list of long-term goals with specific actions to take so you can make progress towards those things over time.
· Let it go – Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes you just need to let it go. I’m sure you’ve heard “perfect is the enemy of good.” I am as guilty of this as anyone I know, but I am learning to let things go when they are good and delegate authority to others so more things can move forward. Don’t be guilty of being a bottleneck that holds things up simply so you can review and approve everything. When you do that you miss out on the incredible feeling of having a great team that can take your business to new heights you never could have imagined. There are plenty of things you can let go of and empower others to decide. Just be selective about which things you need to see, and what others can approve and move. Tip: Consider the root/trunk/branch/leaf approach to decision-making.
· Put a fence around the things that matter most – If something is important to you, don’t allow your demanding schedule to make you miss it. That could include a special project at work, exercise goals, or family activities. I always attend my son’s college football games even though he is in another state now, and for seven years I traveled with my daughter to her competitive cheer competitions. It’s taken a lot of juggling, but I work my schedule around these activities so I can be present for them. It really matters to our kids that my husband and I are there for them. So I put a fence around these activities and do everything possible to make sure I am there.
· Keep something in the reserve tank – There’s a common myth that motorcycles have a reserve gas tank, but there’s only the one that sits between you and the handlebars. The tank does get smaller at the bottom, however, where there’s an intake straw. When the fuel drops below this point, your motorcycle sputters and comes to a stop. But by turning the petcock valve you can access the gas that’s still in the tank and travel another 20 or 30 miles.
I love this illustration because when we’re dealing with challenges, we all need access to a reserve of internal strength and determination that allows us to power through the critical moments when most others will quit.
But in order to have that reserve when you need it, you must build it up in advance by fortifying your emotional capacity, clarifying your sense of purpose and strengthening your desire to succeed. You must also take care of yourself physically, not becoming so run-down or out of shape that you lose the stamina and clear-mindedness to face challenges.
If you haven’t been doing so, now is the time to reinvest in your own health. Get to bed earlier (check out Ariana Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution), put the phone away, take up some sort of physical activity to get moving again, cut back on the carbs. A stronger you will allow you to deal more effectively with whatever comes your way.
I’ll admit some of these steps are easier said than done, but I promise you’ll experience more joy and fulfillment when you start trying them. By doing so, you’ll avoid burnout and become an even better leader than you are today. Learning how to pace yourself is the key — and one of the first steps you can take to becoming more of a journey-minded leader.